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Why mindfulness is good for your health

3/23/2020 by Marcia Johnson, LICSW, and Craig Sawchuk, PhD, LP

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I'm sitting in an ashram, humming "om" all day, and finding perfect bliss. Is that mindfulness? Well, yes — and no. There's a lot of "buzz" these days about the benefits of mindfulness, and the numerous ways to practice it. So what exactly is mindfulness, and why are we so focused on it in health care? 

We have technology at our fingertips, and we can connect with friends or acquaintances with the tap of a finger. Media allows us to be in touch with people more than any other time in history. We know making these connections are good for our health, but why does it seem like the world is spinning so quickly, and our minds seem to be racing all the time? How do we slow the racing brain and allow ourselves to feel more through both body and mind? 

What is mindfulness?

In the rush of modern life, we tend to lose touch with the peace that's available to each of us in each moment. We'd all love to experience this joyful state of mind and well-being. Mindfulness is the path to connection, to that state of well-being, and it's a learned skill. Once learned, these skills can point you toward a calm state of being when you need it most; when your feeling down, stuck, overwhelmed or stressed, or whenever you want to feel good, energized and enthusiastic about life. 

Mindfulness helps overcome stress, energizes the mind, develops focused attention, gives guidance to dissolve unhealthy habits and manage sickness and pain. Through practice, we can find inner joy, focus on priorities, find insight and wisdom, and grow in closeness to ourselves and others. 

In The Joy Compass, Donald Altman, a former Buddhist monk, shares the importance of calibrating the mental tools of awareness: attention and intention. He writes that, "Mindfulness is the awakening of possibility." With mindfulness, you bring a sense of openness and acceptance to what is happening in the moment through the body and mind. 

Mindfulness is intentional, present-focused and nonjudgmental. Our brains have built-in "negativity bias" that prompts us to automatically look for danger or threat. Mindful attention can help you retrain your brain and body to choose joyful thoughts, which leads the physical body to follow by slowing down and becoming more calm. If you can focus on pleasant and productive activities, you'll be more healthy in the physical body. 

How to learn, practice mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh, a mindfulness leader, tells us that a smile on our face relaxes hundreds of muscles in our body. And studies have shown that when we flex our facial muscles into expressions of joy, we produce positive effects on our nervous system that stimulate real joy. 

So why not take a few minutes each day to slow down your brain, reduce some of the "fight or flight" chemicals, recharge in a peaceful manner and focus on stillness pointing toward joy. 

Here are some simple examples for practicing mindfulness: 

For mental energy:

  1. Light a candle.
  2. Sit with a straight back, relax and be aware of the candle.
  3. Notice the colors and light.
  4. When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the candle.
  5. Keep focused on the candle for about 10 minutes. 

For calm:

  1. Sit quietly in a chair, hands on lap, feet on floor. 
  2. Straighten your back. 
  3. Stay still for three minutes. 
  4. Breathe in and out gently, while feeling the presence of your body. 
  5. While staying upright, let your body relax. 

For creativity:

  1. If you're feeling scattered, get up and dance with arms outstretched for about 10 minutes. 
  2. Move the body slowly in different directions. 
  3. Feel the flow of energy as you move the parts of your body. 
  4. Keep the flow going for the full 10 minutes. 

Mindfulness and meditative practices take time to develop. Start off with a few minutes each day, and work on building up your mindfulness stamina over time. Some people have also found apps to be helpful to support their practice. Good apps for mindfulness and medication are: Calm, Personal Zen and Mindfulness Coach. 

Marcia Johnson, LICSW, is a social worker/therapist in Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) at Primary Care Clinic Southeast and has worked for 20 years in psychiatry and behavioral health at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She runs groups for senior vitality, as well as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for depression and anxiety. 

Craig Sawchuk, PhD, LP, is a clinical psychologist in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson and also co-chairs the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health and Professionalism.